Brooks picked up another telltale sign: Peterson's hands. Now, within a long stride of his target, Brooks saw him reach back for the slightly underthrown pass, cupping his hands to his left side. The linebacker's only chance was to use another of Smith's techniques. Right now, more than anything, he needed to channel all of Lovie's know-how.
Now! Brooks thought. Go for it now!
BROOKS'S PREPARATION for Minnesota did not begin five days before the game, with his weekly Tuesday-night phone call from linebackers coach Gus Bradley, who told him, "Peterson's mind-set is not to turn a four-yard play into a 10-yard play. It's to turn four yards into 95." No, the preparation began 49 months earlier, in the den of his north Tampa house, when for the first time he watched Peterson run. For years Brooks has mentally catalogued the moves and tendencies of college players he might have to tackle one day. On that October afternoon in 2004, Peterson, then a 19-year-old Oklahoma freshman, burned Texas for 225 yards. On his third carry of the game he broke off a 44-yard misdirection play.
He runs from color.
It may be surprising that a 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker would study players who are still three or four years from making it to the NFL. But even now, the day before he faced the Vikings, the 35-year-old Brooks settled into his den again to watch Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and running back Percy Harvin in the Gators' rout of South Carolina. "Some people relax or get recharged by going to Europe or going to the beach," Brooks said. "For me it's studying young kids. The one edge I feel no one will ever have over me is the mental edge of knowing players."
Brooks allowed SI to view how he prepared for the matchup with Minnesota and how he analyzed the game afterward. The process revealed what it takes to succeed as an NFL linebacker: Discipline is vital, particularly against an opponent as gifted and unpredictable as Peterson. But instinct is just as important. No matter how much video Brooks watches each week—12 to 15 hours on average—come game day he's going to see some plays he hadn't prepared for.
Brooks's routine is to look at an opponent's passing game on Tuesday. On Wednesday he'll study his own defense's practice tape to look for plays the unit has to improve on, study big gainers by the opposing offense and watch halves from two of the opponent's games, preferably against defenses similar to Tampa Bay's. The rest of the week he picks and chooses film he thinks will be helpful. This week, for instance, he viewed some Eagles plays from 2005, when Vikings coach Brad Childress was Philadelphia's offensive coordinator.
At the Buccaneers' plush offices and training facility, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium, the quietest postpractice study nook on most Wednesdays is the special teams room. Four days before the kickoff against Minnesota, Brooks, still in practice clothes, sat at the coach's desk, the better to control the remote clicker and watch plays over and over. He wanted to see Peterson through the course of a game—not just in cutups showing run after run—and to observe the tendencies of the Vikings' offense, which came to life on the 10-foot-wide drop-down screen.
"See," he said, after watching first quarter footage of Minnesota's Sept. 21 game against the Panthers. "I want to get the flow of their offense, and this is what you wouldn't expect: They come out throwing. Look—it's like eight of the first 10 plays are passes."
Quietly, Brooks asked, "Why? Why? I don't know why they do this, but they do it. We know they'll get it to 28 [Peterson]. It's a matter of when."